The Vizard Foundation
Art Collection of the 1990s
Australian Art and Artists from the Decade

Tony Clark

Tony Clark

The staging-point for Tony Clark's art has usually been his enthusiasm for the history of European taste. An art historian manqué, a collector without funds, Clark has used the freedom of art practice to fabricate a collection of pictures that no one else would think to paint. His lifestyle is that of a post-modern peripatetic, shuttling between apartment studios in St Kilda (Melbourne), Richmond (London) and Palermo (Sicily). Although as a good Orientalist Clark has travelled in North Africa and the Middle East, the Far East for him remains the 'Cathay ... of silk and fans, of bound feet, pigtails, opium, green tea, and junks', not the modern China of Mao or Deng.

Clark's series of chinoiserie paintings began in 1986 when he began to tire of the small 'classical' landscapes he had taught himself to paint under the inspiration of the French seventeenth-century masters Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin.1 Clark reflected on chinoiserie, mindful that it was a European pastiche style inspired by the look of imported goods from China: 'Who has never drunk tea from a Willow Pattern cup? That famous blue landscape was an eighteenth-century classical invention, based of course on Chinese designs, but composed in the classical European manner.'2 Clark concocted small grey plasticine models of classical buildings—temples and funerary monuments—to which he gave the 'Chinese' inflexion of upturned roofs. He copied these images in acrylic onto canvas-boards, providing a background of camouflage motifs in military greens and dun-colours. Such small panels accompanied larger spatter-painting abstractions that he called Designs for a mural painting, in homage to the earliest surviving decorative landscapes, the 'sacro-idyllic' landscapes of ancient Pompeii.

With Two chinoiserie landscapes and a design for a mural painting (1993–94) the ambition progressed. Clark inverted the scale of panels: resplendent chinoiserie images became the main game, and moody blue spatter-paintings the sideshow. His stunted plasticine tree with three meagre branches is the sign of a sign of a sign, its globular foliage inspired by that of the Willow Pattern. Yet the tree is animated, and gestures in towards its mate, a pointy pagoda with lower limbs akimbo like a person in a picture wearing a coolie's hat. The pagoda is the quintessential architectural conceit of chinoiserie: during its heyday in the late eighteenth-century, dozens of pagodas were built in stone and timber to decorate the gardens of the wealthy in Europe3. Pagoda and tree are like two figures in a portrait against a studio backdrop: a riot of day-glo colours in the nodular pattern of camouflage. These hot pinks are a nod to the pop art background of Andy Warhol, whom Clark much admires.

Tony Clark remains an unclassifiable artist, uniquely himself, an inventor in the field of visuality who brings a quirky sense of the history of styles to bear upon the problems of painting within the modernist tradition. The relation of illusionism and low relief to flatness, colour savoured for its own sake, the value of patternisation and the decorative: such problems of representation are part of his agenda as a painter. In this he is like Matisse, and like the Frenchman he has reached out to other cultures, but with a clear sense of the limits of the enterprise:

Chinoiserie ... draws attention to the falsity and vulgarity of 'East meets West', to the multitude of sins the phrase attempts to conceal. As a style it bears witness to the West's historic inability to enter into spontaneous and joyous congress with other cultures, reminds us that we 'can't dance'.

- Roger Benjamin

  1. See M Delany et al, Tony Clark: public and private paintings, 1982 – 1998, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, 1998.
  2. T Clark, Tony Clark: chinoiserie landscape, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1989, np. All other artist quotes from this source.
  3. R Benjamin, 'Tony Clark: chinoiserie', in Transcultural painting, Asialink, Melbourne & the University of Melbourne Museum of Art, 1994, p. 25.

Tony Clark is represented in Australia by Murray White Room, Melbourne and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.